First Person

Common English And Its “Domain-Specific” Vocabulary

From middle school on, English teachers spend tons of time teaching what are now called “literary elements.” When I was a kid, we called them “literary devices,” which I think is a better term for things like metaphor, imagery, onomatopoeia: the devices that writers use to create literature. Whatever you call them, these devices are the foundation of a solid English education.

When I teach “Of Mice and Men,” the class spends a lot of time talking about imagery. When I teach “Romeo and Juliet,” we talk about metaphor. And when we finally get around to poetry, we talk about alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and all the other specialized devices that elevate separate great literature from office memos.

There are always students who ask, “Why do we need to learn this stuff?” They say that nobody’s ever going to approach them on the street and ask them to clarify the difference between simile and metaphor; no job interviewer will ever ask them what they know about assonance. These students are probably right. Unless they become English teachers, having a thorough understanding of literary devices will not help these students make money. The truth is, we don’t teach literary elements because students are likely to use them in the workplace. (The same could be said, by the way, of calculus, chemistry, and American history.) We teach them because they are the building blocks of literature, and of all sophisticated writing. Without understanding these elements, students can’t discuss reading or writing with any authority; without understanding these elements, those students who want to become writers will lack many of the tools necessary to create great writing.

As far as the folks behind the Common Core standards are concerned, that’s just fine. Thanks to the Common Core, this year a series of “Shifts in ELA/Literacy” will be imposed upon English teachers across the country. These shifts require, among other things, that English teachers spend less time on “esoteric literary terms … such as ‘onomatopoeia’ or ‘homonym’” and more time on “pivotal and commonly found words…such as ‘discourse,’ ‘generation,’ ‘theory,’ and ‘principled.’” It’s worth noting that not one of the terms identified as “pivotal” under these common core shifts is specific to the discipline of English. This is particularly interesting given the Common Core’s insistence on “domain-specific” vocabulary.

Why do the folks behind the Common Core think domain-specific vocabulary isn’t important when it comes to English? Again, the language used to describe the new Common Core approach highlights the ways that these standards will change the goal of English study from understanding and mastery of literature and literary writing to “constantly build[ing] students’ ability to access more complex texts across the content areas.” In other words, the goal of English class will become helping students read texts for their other subject areas — the ones that really matter, like math.

Contrast the mandated shifts in English curricula to the Common Core “Shifts in Mathematics.” In math, under the Common Core, teachers are instructed to “teach more than ‘how to get the answer’ and instead support students’ ability to access concepts from a number of perspectives.” In math, the goal is that “students demonstrate deep conceptual understanding of core math concepts by applying them to new situations, as well as writing and speaking about their understanding.”

I have to be honest: that sounds awesome. It’s exactly what the goal should be for English class: deep conceptual understanding of core literary concepts. In order to gain such a deep understanding though, students must first master the elements that make up literature. Unfortunately, the folks behind the Common Core have made it abundantly clear that they see little value in having students understand literature. Over and over again, Common Core advocates have promoted teaching “informational texts” over literature. According to the Common Core, more than 50 percent of high school English curricula are supposed to consist of informational texts. By 12th grade, the Common Core recommends that 70 percent of the texts students read in English be informational, not literary. In other words, the more advanced students get in English, the less specialized their knowledge will become.

How will this affect me in the classroom? For starters, it will be deadly boring. Pulling information out of a text is not a high school-level skill. Indeed, according to basic literacy theory, “reading to learn new information” is a skill that should be mastered from ages 8 to 14. In high school, we should be focusing on moving students past basic comprehension (recommended by the Common Core) towards viewing texts from multiple perspectives, and then eventually towards constructing their own critical perspectives on these texts.

“Informational texts” provide few opportunities for such high-level thought. They are written at a basic level for a basic purpose— to convey information. This is why teaching literature is so essential. When my students read “Romeo and Juliet,” they have to gather information: plot points, character traits, and characteristics of setting are all forms of information that students must gather from literary texts. That information gathering, however, is not the goal of our study. The goal, ultimately, is to have students understand how Shakespeare uses language to provoke a variety of reactions in his readers. How does he use imagery to convey his characters’ emotional states? How does he use dramatic irony to heighten the audience’s interest? How can we use Shakespeare’s methods in our own writing? How do great writers use language to convey complex ideas and manipulate their readers?

We can approach these complex questions through “Romeo and Juliet” because Romeo and Juliet is literature; it is complex writing that operates on many levels simultaneously in order to transcend the limits of language and provoke complex reactions in its readers. As such, literature demands far more of its readers than do “informational texts.” Along with that, it offers far greater rewards.

Under the Common Core, English teachers are told that for every unit we spend on “The House on Mango Street,” we must spend another on texts that are less rich and less complex. We are instructed not to teach the literary elements that make deep, complex writing possible. In the end, we are required to emphasize the most basic and superficial aspect of written communication — the simple transmission of information — at the expense of all the elements that make students want to read “The Hunger Games rather than watch reality television. When, after pulling a fact out of an informational text for the umpteenth time, students ask me that old question, “Why do we have to do this?”, I don’t know what I’ll say. It just doesn’t make any sense.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.